It has been a huge year for film festivals Australia-wide. There are now well over 100 film festivals from the behemoth international capital city festivals to the sweet suburban short film one day events to the special interest (yes I am thinking of the Spooky Cat Film Festival in Canberra) and the enormous range of national film festivals that feature films from as far afield as New Zealand to the Baltics. There really is something for everyone somewhere across this wide sepia land.
Some new festivals have emerged and instantly found an audience (David Stratton’s Great Britain Retro Film Festival; Pasifika, the new Island culture film festival; and Port Shorts in Port Douglas to name just a few).
Other festivals have come back from the dead, maybe a little obviously, A Night of Horror and the much-loved Dungog Film Festival. And Tropfest, which saw an insurance company come to its aid after the 22-year-old short film fest was cancelled due to alleged financial mismanagement by its production company.
This is our biggest film festival in terms of attendance and international impact, having spawned a global franchise for the format of short films in competition in a free outdoor event, and long may it reign. That said, the recently completed (and soon touring) Flickerfest International Short Film Festival celebrated its 25th year with a brilliant program of short films from around the world.
In terms of feature films, in the absence of a genuine, dedicated arthouse circuit, film festivals in Australia are playing an increasingly vital role in our culture. They have become an alternative and distinctive distribution network often with great opening night parties. They are providing audiences with an opportunity to see films as part of a dedicated community that would be otherwise commercially unviable without the festival and sponsor subsidises. Audiences are seeking not just particular films, but unique experiences that heighten their viewing. Sampling the cuisine or the music or dancing of a particular nation is an integral part of the experience.
The opening night of the German Film Festival singlehandedly reshaped patrons’ perceptions of German gastronomy.
Some of the staging innovations this year included having the opening night party, traditionally held after the screening, moved to commence proceedings. In the case of the Irish Film Festival, their event was cannily tied in with the theme of The Stag, a film about a wild buck’s party. The drinks flowed freely for at least two hours prior to the film. Audience members were offered typically Irish cuisine – the highlight was the innovative Tayto sandwiches to support the Guinness and the Jameson. I have never heard so much raucous applause and a roar of approval as when the Jameson ad came on from an audience well ready to celebrate.
Every state has a major metropolitan film festival with Melbourne International Film Festival the granddaddy of them all – it features the oldest, longest, biggest, and most diverse program and pulls the largest audience of some 250,000. But every state delivers something special.
The Revelation Film Festival in Perth continues to surprise with its pioneering programming and eclectic curatorship with Jack Sargeant at the helm, and recently launched a streaming service of some of its past films!
The mid-winter festival in Hobart, Dark Mofo, is of a similar breed as it celebrates all things gothic and shadowy. In contrast, the Breath of Fresh Air Festival in Launceston later in the year is devoted to positive ideas and had a huge increase in box office with the success of its red carpet and major features, including five Tasmanian films! Roll on BOFA 2016!
The biannual Adelaide Film Festival (pictured above) plays a vital role in its financial support for a number of new films that they premiere and The Dressmaker made quite an impression before going on to capture the local box office. This groundbreaking festival really needs to go annual!
The Darwin International Film Festival in September has become one of the important cultural events of the far north and offered an intelligent and socially conscious program with the Brazilian film, The Second Mother, picking up the Audience Award.
The Canberra International Film Festival sought to change its flagging fortunes of previous years with a venue change and a shift to a new grassroots focus with the nine-day event bookended by ACT produced features. It was taken over by film distribution veteran Andrew Pike (Ronin Films) who has finally placed it on the right path.
The last major festival of the year was the revamped Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, which showcased 102 films, 34 of which were nominated for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, attracting some of the biggest names in world cinema to Brisbane.
With the two best films of this year’s Sydney Film Festival both by Bong Joon-ho, Haemoo and the remastered into black and white The Mother, it was clear that Korean cinema is hot right now. The Korean Film Festival in Australia mixes genre filmmaking with box office hits and classy arthouse flicks. Breaking all expectations for an opening film was How To Steal A Dog, a heartwarming family friendly film that was a charming adaptation of the well-known American children’s novel about three kids and a dog, some wily kidnappers, a homeless family and a grumpy, fairy godmother.
The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is the biggest of all the national film festivals with an audience in excess of 150,000. The diverse programming is a showcase of the best of French cinema of the past 12 months. What is remarkable is how many of the national film festivals are the largest of their kind anywhere in the world.
The Russian Resurrection Film Festival reputed for having the best opening night party of all with the vodka flowing freely did not disappoint. A huge opening night party with some of the biggest stars of Russian cinema in attendance saw a diverse program of material totally independent of any government interference. It has successfully expanded into New Zealand, but without annexing the island nation.
And with the Chinese film industry expanding at a furious rate it should not be surprising that we have three Chinese Film Festivals spread across the year!
The German Film Festival demonstrated that cinema is provocative with one of the biggest controversies of the year surrounding The Cut, from acclaimed German-Turkish director Fatih Akin. Death threats led to the post-screening discussion of the Armenian genocide to be cancelled after NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, a senior figure in the Armenian-Australian community, withdrew. According to Dr Arpad Solter, director of the film festival at the time, “the minister was concerned about appearing on a platform with genocide deniers”. This was a rare case of silencing a post-film discussion.
Film Festivals rarely intersect, but this year the Arab Film Festival opened with Ghadi, a new Lebanese film that was also the opening night film of the Lebanese Film Festival only a few weeks later. Thankfully it was a good film.
We all know how good Iranian cinema is so it was totally logical that there are two Iranian Film Festivals – the Iranian showcases more commercial films, while the Persian Film Festival features arthouse and prestige selections. The latter’s opening night film, The President, by Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a stunning political allegory about a dictator who comes face to face with the people he previously subjugated, made by a director in exile.
But there is only one exclusively Australian film festival – set in outback central Queensland, in an outdoor theatre under the stars in the little town of Winton (home of Qantas and the birthplace of Waltzing Matilda). The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival showcases the best Australian outback films alongside tours to the shooting location of The Proposition and Mystery Road, a barbeque cooked by a famous Australian actor and some of the most incisive talks and masterclasses by the legends of Australian cinema. It opened this year with Last Cab To Darwin, a film that was a clear festival favourite as it also opened Revelation and should have opened Sydney instead of the misguided choice of a long ad about advertising and alcoholism.
No, it is not déjà vu! Queer Screen stages two festivals. Clearly there is an appetite and people were hungry with the opening night a sell-out event. Sydney’s Queer Film Fest is the little cousin of the big one in February. There is an audience for LGBTI content because people know many of these films will not be seen otherwise on a big screen. Interestingly the opening night film, Boulevard by Dito Montiel would appeal to mainstream audiences as it featured Robin Williams in his final dramatic performance. The other films were a little more racy while catering to everyone under the rainbow.
It’s purrfect that there are at least two Cat Film Festivals in Australia that feature an international program of the best cat videos from around the world. Meow!
And just for perfect symmetry there is the Good Dog Film Festival at the opposite end of the year. The festival draws its programming from any film that contains a dog theme. Woof!
The annual Banff Mountain festival once again thrilled and terrified audiences with a collection of extreme sport events. Another form of extreme is the Sydney Underground Film Festival with its standard dose of exploitation, zombies, Halloween horror and monsters. It opened with Gaspar Noe’s provocative Love in 3D that some accused of being pornography with the money shot shocking the audience as it came splattering at them in 3D.
Some of the original highlights of the year included the Girls On Film Festival, a three-day program in Melbourne in October that the team describes as a “mixtape of movies, parties and feminism.”
The very first Football Film Festival was a great concept with a well-established audience base and a tight focus.
The Sci-Fi Film Festival brought together the best in science fiction, fantasy films and entertainment from Australia and around the world in an all-day event while screening over 50 features, short films and animation for the cosplay veterans, sci-fi enthusiast and the curious.
Film festivals are becoming more and more specific and more expansive of traditional borders. There was a Drone Film Festival in New York featuring films shot exclusively with cameras mounted on drones. Then came the Virtual Reality film festival showcasing 20 short films from around the world that explore this very new and amazing field. The Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival requires films to be presented on specialist equipment that is taking the presentation of its content in an entirely new way and is really pushing the boundaries of what it means to stage a film festival.
On the topic of festival demises, it is important to note the sad passing of Metro Screen in Sydney. This was a vital organisation that helped foster Sydney’s film culture and it was instrumental in helping start and nurture so many festivals. It is important for other States to hold on to their grassroots production support organisations especially for emerging artists.
While the festival sector is clearly growing, there are concerns among the pundits that screening films for festivals will no longer be enough and that there is a need to diversify, capture the video-on-demand market, and expand into new areas of cultural influence. Given the attendances and audience engagement this year – it seems that there is definitely an appetite for more, just as long as people know where they can get the festival fix…
For a full listing of current film festivals across the year and around Australia, visit www.filmfest.net.au/current-festivals.
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